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The insidious effects of ageism in the workplace

Ageism affects more than just the workers who face discrimination. So why is there so little training on age-related bias?

The insidious effects of ageism in the workplace
[Photo: David Lee/Unsplash]

Age discrimination is an unfortunately common reality in the workplace, and its effects extend well beyond individual workers. According to a recent study by business insurance provider Hiscox, 21% of those over the age of 40 have been the victim of age discrimination in the workplace, 80% of whom say it has impacted their career trajectory. At the same time, 62% of all workers received no formal training related to age-based discrimination in the previous 12 months, according to the study.

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One of the reasons why a majority of employers—many of whom offer other forms of discrimination training—don’t offer age-related bias training is a lack of awareness, as incidents often go unreported. In fact, the Hiscox study found that only 40% of victims and less than half of all witnesses filed a charge or complaint.

“We find that respondents who do receive training actually were better at reporting these types of issues than those who didn’t, so it really makes a big difference,” says Hiscox USA’s management liability product head, Patrick Mitchell.

Ageism impacts every member of an organization, regardless of age

Age discrimination can be devastating to the careers and well-being of those impacted, but it can also have adverse affects on the organization more broadly, especially where specific training isn’t offered.

“Experiencing this type of discrimination—whether as the victim or the witness—causes employees to be demotivated, and it hurts productivity, it hurts customer service, it hurts product quality perhaps as well, and we also see more turnover,” says Mitchell. “Those who witness it, especially those approaching the age of 40, see how those over 40 are being treated and say, ‘this may not be a company I want to work for in the future.'”

With so much focus on millennials and Gen Z, it’s easy to forget how significant the older population is and how quickly it’s growing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age of the American worker is 42.2 years old, and those over 55 will comprise a quarter of the entire American workforce in less than five years.

Paul Pellman, the CEO of Kazoo, uses the example of learning how to tie your shoes when describing the advantages of an age-diverse workforce; it’s a lot easier to figure things out when benefiting from the advice of someone who’s done it before.

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“If you have to sit there and try to figure it out on your own, you’ll eventually get it, but it’ll take a really long time,” he says. “Having someone in the organization who’s been there and done it before when you face a really challenging situation just helps you get to the right answer faster; it brings a point of view into the dialogue that helps you make a better and more well-rounded decision.”

A “second-class civil right”

Though many employers offer discrimination training on the basis of sexual orientation, race, or gender, the majority of employers still don’t offer similar training around ageism. “The vast majority of employers who offer any sort of diversity and inclusion training do not cover age,” says Laurie McCann, a senior attorney at AARP Foundation. “This goes right back to how age discrimination is viewed as the second-class civil right; it’s overlooked.”

McCann can’t say for sure why it’s not taken as seriously as other forms of discrimination, despite federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of age, though she explains it often requires a higher burden of proof. “It is as serious, it is as wrong, it has the same devastating consequences, and yet the courts have made it far more difficult to prove,” she says. McCann adds that legislation to lower the burden of proof for victims of age discrimination was recently approved by a House committee and could be voted on as early as the fall.

For the meantime, many are less sensitive to issues related to age discrimination, according to McCann, because unlike race, gender, or sexual orientation, it’s a minority group everyone will one day be members of someday—if they’re lucky. “I think we’re all guilty of it, and I don’t think people realize until they themselves are the victim of age discrimination that it is very wrong,” she says.

A simple addition to existing training that can have significant results

“People have sexual harassment training, they have unconscious bias training around race, but we have not been intentional about conversations around age and ageism in our training,” says Johnny C. Taylor Jr., CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Taylor says that the return on investment for such training is fairly straightforward. “If we’re trying to create a culture where everyone brings their best self to work, and organizations benefit from all of those best selves, then you don’t want any form of discrimination or harassment to be tolerated in the workforce,” he says.

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Taylor adds that organizations that fail to address ageism are missing an opportunity to prevent discrimination, not to mention leaving themselves open to a potential liability. “Why wait until there are tons of class action lawsuits? Why should we wait for a court to tell us ‘you must be better and train better’? We should do better and train better because it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “We’ll all be older, and we all have older parents, so what are we waiting for?”

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About the author

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist born, raised and residing in Toronto, covering technology, entrepreneurship, entertainment and more for a wide variety of publications in Canada, the United States and around the world. When he's not playing with gadgets, interviewing entrepreneurs or traveling to music festivals and tech conferences you can usually find him diligently practicing his third-person bio writing skills.

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